“Is it safe?” This ominous and maddeningly vague question is asked ad nauseum to a young and terrified Dustin Hoffman.
He’s strapped to a chair, at the mercy of an ex-Nazi doctor. While the torture that unfolds is graphically tame by today’s more gruesome standards, it can still make you recoil in fear. It’s hard to watch, but the movie is worth the endurance.
In 1976, American author and screenwriter William Goldman adapted his 1974 book Marathon Man into a feature film directed by John Schlesinger. The movie has a few legacies. It’s the first theatrically-released film to use the Steadicam. The aforementioned torture scene is truly terrifying (“Is it safe?” made AFI’s “100 Years...100 Movie Quotes” list in 2005). On-set tensions between Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, the film’s antagonist, led to an exchange that epitomizes the fallacies of method acting. When Hoffman exhausted himself to achieve his character’s fatigue, Olivier snarked, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
But Marathon Man should be known for more than just bits of trivia. It’s an almost perfect ‘70s noir thriller that lives inside a wondrously textured and gritty New York, a snapshot of the city before Giuliani’s repressive sanitation. Dustin Hoffman is in his prime, both as an artist and a physical specimen. But when he’s paired with the magnificent Olivier in the role of a stone cold Nazi villain, the two create palpable onscreen animosity that pretty much makes the movie. With topsy turvy twists and turns, Marathon Man is the thriller you need to see before it leaves HBO Max on March 30.
In Marathon Man, Babe (Hoffman) is a graduate student with a grudge. Still traumatized by the suicide of his father during the McCarthy trials, Babe spends his days studying and running. He’s determined to prove his father was innocent, if only to himself. Babe believes his brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is a big time oil executive, but when Doc is murdered, Babe learns he was really a government agent. This leads to a game of cat and mouse between Babe and Dr. Christian Szell, a terrifying Nazi war criminal whose nickname “Weiss Engel” (White Angel) strikes fear into those who still remember it.
Central to the plot is a large cache of diamonds. Taken from Jews during the Holocaust, these diamonds now finance Szell’s comfy retirement in South America. Szell oversees a network of diamond smuggling alongside his brother, but when the latter is killed in a wonderfully absurd car chase Szell’s paranoia kicks into overdrive, bringing him to America.
Marathon Man isn’t a horror movie, but it has the underlying tensions of one. For both Babe and Doc, danger lurks in every corner. They could be in your hotel room. They could be the girl you flirt with. They could be the person walking down the street next to you, a retractable blade up their sleeve. No one can be trusted. It’s a gritty world in Marathon Man, and over 45 years later its illustration of evil among us is as true as ever. As The Good Place more recently remarked, there are Nazis again, somehow. Marathon Man shows that these agents of hatred haven’t merely disappeared and returned, but that they’ve always been around in plain sight.
In the 2000s, “torture porn” rose as horror’s preeminent subgenre. Its popularity was emblematic of post-9/11, Iraq War-era nihilism and paranoia. It wasn’t an accident. The Bush administration famously advocated torture and propagated fears of devastating weaponry. Our movies afforded anxious audiences catharsis, with horror hits like Saw, Hostel, and the works of Rob Zombie a safe, dark space to scream. Marathon Man precedes the rise of torture porn by decades, but it provided the blueprints James Wan and Eli Roth would follow.
But Marathon Man masterfully resists doing what the new millennium couldn’t keep itself from. Its genius isn’t its visual gruesomeness, but the lack of it. Maybe it’s because 1976’s standards were different, or because director John Schlesinger was an Oscar-winning craftsman. Either way, the enduring anguish of the film relies on Hoffman’s acting and Olivier’s banal inhumanity.
“Relax,” Szell orders Babe, who knows what’s coming. “Come on. Open.” He rubs his chin like a dentist instructing a child patient. In goes the tools. Out comes screams. Later, Szell explains how the creation of new holes in teeth is more painful than tinkering with existing cavities. “A live, freshly cut nerve is infinitely more sensitive,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. No blood spews from Hoffman’s mouth to sell audiences on the pain. It’s Szell’s description. The sounds of a whirring drill, Hoffman’s screams, and a blurry fade into the dim bulb hanging above them is a rare instance of how telling and not showing still does the trick. Let the audience do the horrible work.
Marathon Man is streaming on HBO Max until March 30.